The Penguin Post has learned that in Edinburgh, Scotland some Gentoo penguins are preparing to leave their Scottish zoo home and fly halfway around the world to western Canada. No, they’re not migrating. These gentoo penguins are be carefully loaded into specially built kennels and, under the supervision of a Calgary Zoo boss, make their way across the ocean via cargo plane. In Calgary, they’ll eventually be joined by three other species of the waddling black and white birds from various zoos across the United States and Canada in their new Calgary Zoo digs: Penguin Plunge. Five years after it was first announced, the $24.5-million exhibit is now due to open in less than six weeks. Zoo officials are hoping everything will be in place to open Penguin Plunge to the public in time for the Family Day long weekend in mid-February.
The display is a scaled-back version of the massive Arctic Landing plan first envisioned in 2006. That $100-million proposal included bringing polar bears and beluga whales, and included a plan for an outdoor body of water the size of a football field. Zoo critics were quick to lambaste the Calgary facility over animal welfare concerns. In the end, it was the price tag – which more than doubled at the height of Calgary’s boom when planning was still in early stages – that sunk Arctic Landing.
Today, the zoo has high hopes for the penguins.
Penguin Plunge has indoor and outdoor homes for the birds where visitors can watch the penguins swim, slide and gobble up fish and squid. It features rocky outcroppings, splashing water fountains and a deep chilly pool.
Inside, light projected on the domed ceiling is programed to glow like Aurora Australis. Visitors enter into a walk-through exhibit with Plexiglass walls where the penguins swim right past. The pathway has a viewing area, too, where the birds can paddle by underneath. Up to 50 penguins from four species – gentoo, king, rockhopper and the endangered Humboldt – will take up residence in the new display. It’s one of the most technically complex exhibits at the zoo. After a string of deaths and animal mishaps prompted a fiery reproach of the Calgary collection in 2010, zoo officials say they’ve been thorough in their homework and are ready to welcome the lovable flightless birds to the city.”They’re obviously endearing animals,’ said zoo spokeswoman Laurie Skene. They’re charismatic animals but there’s a bigger story to tell.” That story – information about global warming and the imminent threats facing some species of penguins – will be told through an educational component tied to the display. The four penguin species were chosen in part because the Calgary facility can provide a healthy environment and proper care for them, said Skene. But another part of the decision is the conservation role the zoo hopes to embrace. Humboldts are particularly threatened, while Rockhoppers are beginning to face new challenges to survival, she said. “Modern zoos are becoming sort of the Noah’s Arks of keeping genetic diversity going for some species that are not now facing extinction in the wild,” said Skene. Animal welfare groups say they’re concerned the zoo is more focused on cashing in on penguins’ cute factor, buoyed by crowd-pleasing films such as Happy Feet (starring Emperor penguins) and Mr. Popper’s Penguins (featuring gentoo birds). Of the four species coming to Calgary, for example, only the King penguins spend long periods in cold weather, noted Barry Kent MacKay, Canadian representative of Born Free USA. He said he hoped the Calgary Zoo gave correct information about each species true habitat rather than a “cartoonish” version. Important issues, such as food shortages caused by overfishing or oil spills, should be addressed in the display, he contended. “I don’t like to see these beautiful creatures put into an incorrect environment in terms of what they really live like and then rationalize it as being a conservation or education effort,” said MacKay, a director of Zoocheck Canada, one of the zoo’s fiercest critics. “What they’re doing is putting these birds into a very contrived and cliched setting and trying to convince people it’s educational.”